School Swap – The Class Divide

School Swap, ITV’s quasi-documentary series concluded last night. Described as an ‘unique experiment’ (it was neither) the series saw pupils from a private and a state school swap places.  In the first episode three pupils from the private Warminster School in Wiltshire travel to Derby to spend a week attending lessons at The Bemrose School.  In the second episode three pupils from Bemrose spent a week boarding at Warminster.  The swap is designed to highlight the contrasts between the two types of schools and despite ITV claiming it to be ‘unique’ is actually a well rehearsed TV format (for example in the 1980’s the BBC’s Forty Minutes broadcast the feature Changing Places which saw pupils from Rugby School exchanging places with Ruffwood, a comprehensive in Kirkby near Liverpool) and one that endures, along with social class and educational inequalities.

By highlighting the apparent success of the private sector there was an implication that the state sector is deficient in comparison.  This framing of the problem of the ‘educational divide’ serves to set up the private sector as offering solutions to the challenges faced by  state schools, and in so doing diverts attention from the pervasive problems of an unequal society.  Analysis of the assumptions and ideas presented were thin on the ground.  For example, the identification of ‘white working class boys’ as underachieving is a gross oversimplification which is supported in some discourses by the conflation of ‘Free School Meals’ with ‘working class’. It also diverts attention from the underachievement of pupils from Black backgrounds.  In the interviews with the Bemrose pupils at Warminster a positive attitude to the school dress code was considered to be a worthy moral position, but this position can be problematised as being an example of how pupils are socialised into conformity or belonging to the group (a good start would be to read some Durkheim or Bowles and Gintis).

While the series was sub-titled The Class Divide, there was little analysis of the ways in which social class might shape educational experiences and outcomes, and this was revealed in some of the problematic statements from both headteachers, which one would have expected to have been challenged in a documentary. From the Head teacher of Warminster there was a denial that contacts helped to improve the life chances of its students, which is to ignore the powerful influences of different forms of social capital for educational outcomes and life chances.  From the headteacher of the Bemrose School there was an expression of the belief that “education is the key to unlocking the inequalities in society”, yet education systems have a social purpose, are shaped by the society in which they exist and thus may serve to reproduce social inequality, rather than challenge it.  At the end of the series we learn that Brett from Bemrose has been offered a funded place at Warminster, but there was no explanation of why Brett was singled out for the offer. Twitter users responded by offering congratulations.  If he chooses to accept, Brett may well benefit, but benevolent scholarships are not the answer to inequalities in education.

This was documentary lite.  It is more interesting to see how the debate is framed than for anything it reveals about social class and educational inequalities and solutions to this injustice.  Please, read some Bourdieu, some Durkheim, Ball…


Caught in the Education Act

Caught in the Act is a one day conference organised by a network of campaign groups and organisations concerned about the future of education, including the Anti Academies Alliance, Campaign for State Education, Comprehensive Future, the journal FORUM, Information for School and College Governors (ISCG), and the Socialist Educational Association

The Conference in centred on the imminent Education Act, and has the tagline Tackling Michael Gove’s Education Revolution.  Though, at present, the revolution is not so much an Act as a Bill which is shortly to go to the committee stage in the House of Lords.

An impressive list of speakers will lead workshops on the implications of the new legislation.  These include:

Clyde Chitty and Melissa Benn on A Divided Education System

David Wolfe, specialist in education law from Matrix Chambers on Implications of the new Education Act.

Prof. Stephen Ball, an all round expert on the sociology of education on Privatisation.

Martin Johnson, the Deputy General Secretary of the teachers’ union,  Association for Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) on Edubusiness.

Sam Ellis, funding specialist from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on Paying the Price

Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) on The International Scene

Dr. Patrick Roach, the Deputy General Secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT who will discuss What Next?

The conference will be held between 10am and 3.30pm on  Saturday 19th November,  at the University of London Union, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HY.

More details, and information on booking can be found on the CASE website.

Ruairi is too bright for Loxley Barratt

Borsetshire must have more than its fair share of private schools and privately educated pupils if The Archers are anything to go by.  We know this because school choice, once again, features in the storyline.

Ruairi Donovan has been through a lot in his short life.  He is the son of Brian Aldridge from his extra-marital affair with the lately departed Siobhan Hathaway/Donovan.  She died from cancer, in 2007.  Upon her death, Brian’s long-suffering, but immensely strong wife, Jennifer agreed to take him on. Bewildered, little Ruairi  arrived at Home Farm. The decision about his schooling then, was that, if possible he should attend, the local primary,  Loxley Barratt.  It would be too traumatic to be packed off to boarding school so soon after loosing his mother and being transported to Ambridge.  They had missed the application for school places, and, as the fictional school at Loxley Barratt was fully subscribed, they had an anxious wait over that summer to see if a place became available.  They were in luck. Ruairi has settled.

Fast forward nearly four years, such fears have evaporated, and now boarding is being seriously considered for this eight year old.  So, in other words, Brian and Jennifer are perusing the education market place.

They appear to have an abstract notion that private is better than state.  They are not so much dissatisfied with Loxley Barratt as convinced that it is not good enough for Ruairi, referring to some unsubstantiated claim that his teacher wouldn’t expect him to complete all his homework.  Brian and Jennifer are articulate, why don’t they exercise their cultural capital by speaking to Ruairi’s teacher to find out what this story is really about?

Educational expertise is not wholly trusted by Brian and Jennifer.  Instead they are engaging in a class based process of school choice.   Brian did remark that it is an increasingly competitive world out there; he wants Ruairi to have the edge.  In other words, he wants to ensure, understandably, the reproduction of his social class advantage.

It could be argued that they are engaged in a process of matching Ruairi to the most appropriate school (Ball, 2011). Firstly, this can be seen in their  decision to go private on the basis that Ruairi is bright, and therefore, presumably too clever for the state sector.  Secondly, we heard their rejection of private day schools on the grounds of the amount of traveling involved, which, Jennifer in particular felt would be too much for young Ruairi.  Lastly, boarding school was felt to be appropriate for Ruairi because of the activities on offer, he would surely enjoy these, and to deny him these opportunities as a day pupil wouldn’t be fair.  So, it is in Ruairi’s best interests to board, he has been matched to this type of school.

Jennifer has also been consulting the grapevine (Ball and Vincent, 1998), to help with the decision making. Thus far, this has involved phoning Elizabeth Pargetter as to her opinions about local boarding schools.   Ball and Vincent describe the kind of information that Elizabeth might be able to offer as hot knowledge.  Elizabeth might be able to describe her feel for a school, with this helpful to the Brian and Jennifer, supplementing the cold of official knowledge they have already obtained from the schools’ websites and Ofsted reports.

The rationales presented by Brian and Jennifer suggest that there is no alternative for Ruairi.  He must be educated privately, and, no doubt he will be. Of course, there is an alternative, but this is ignored in Jennifer and Brian’s thought processes. Their decision making is presented as normal, natural, what all parents go through, not the class based process that it is.

When the time  comes for secondary school choice to be made, they could utilise the grapevine to seek out the hot knowledge of Jill Archer.  She would advise them, as she did her own daughter, that: There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green.

Continue reading “Ruairi is too bright for Loxley Barratt”

Waterloo Road and the elusive exclusive Russell Group

At Waterloo Road, Kim, the Head of Pastoral Care, and Chris, the Deputy Head are making things up as they go along.  The  hitherto existing evidence supports this claim, and this week, further evidence of their ad hoc application of educational initiatives was put before the audience.

This week, Chris happened to set up a scheme to help one student, Ros, get into Oxbridge.  Other students,  may get to University, if they applied themselves, he asserted, but stood no chance of getting to one of the ‘really academic Universities’. 

What he meant, was, that this scheme was designed to help students get into one of the Russell Group of UK Universities.  Though, as ‘Russell Group’ is not frequently found in popular discourses, he couldn’t really say this in a popular TV drama. Inevitably, at Waterloo Road, some pupils felt disgruntled at being excluded from this scheme.  In particular, Michaela White, felt she had been unfairly labelled as ‘thick’, and campaigned for equal opportunities. The result, a selection interview revealed that Ros McCain had a very clear idea about her future, and the role of University in achieving this.  Michaela, on the other hand, was less sure, she knew what she didn’t want to do. 

This episode was, of course, full of sociological concepts.  There are, as Chris Mead stated ‘hundreds of Universities’.  Probably there is one which would take Michaela White, if she wanted to go.  But, some, it appears are better than others, or, as Mr Mead put it, there are some Universities which are really academic.  And, this is true.  While more young people now go to University in this country than have ever done, with Widening Participation a policy which many Universities pursue, attracting ‘non traditional students’, there remains inequality between High Education Institutions. 

At Waterloo Road, this stark reality was highlighted.  There were, for example, a number of references to social class and Higher Education.  The stratification of Universities reproduces social class and wealth inequalities.  In other words, your social class is likely to shape, not only whether you go to University, but also which University you go to.  Chris Mead said that he wanted Ros to have the opportunities that pupils at a private school would take for granted, so was clearly aware of this social class inequality.  Here, are clear references to Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and cultural capital.  Ros may be able to get the grades to get into a top University, but, as Mr Mead observed, she lacks the confidence.  Mead went further in describing her as a genuinely bright working-class kid.  So, while she isn’t surrounded by the right people who could help her get to Oxbridge, she deserving of the school’ help.  It is doubtful however, that a few months of tutoring by kindly teachers at Waterloo Road will supply Ros with the cultural capital that other, more advantaged pupils will possess. 

Chris Mead was less sympathetic to Michaela White.  Presumably, while she is working class, she is not genuinely ‘bright’.  In the end, she decided that University wasn’t for her.  Some sociologists have described this type of attitude as a form of classed identity where individuals reject the prospect of University, because it appears alien to working class experience.   Pupils like Michaela then, make choices about their future, and decide not to go to University, with this contributing to social class inequalities in higher education.  Mr Mead, however, appeared not to be familiar with the work of Louise Archer (et al) and preferred to label Michaela as a trouble maker. 

Elsewhere in the school, reality was suspended.  Aidan, a pupil we had never met before, was intent on maintaining his supplies of doughnuts and sausage rolls, and, Rachel Mason was holding an interview for a chef and health eating co-ordinator.  All part of her job, however, she appeared to be conducting the interviews alone, and the morning of the interviews was the first that staff knew about this new post. Did they all miss the advert?  Was not the Head of Pastoral Care invited to the shortlisting?  In the end she offered the job to a Mr Fleet, who, had missed his interview, having being trapped in Ruby’s cookery class. Which, raises more questions about the recruitment process. Continue reading “Waterloo Road and the elusive exclusive Russell Group”